Nobody who has fanned heated armpits after a tussle with Lee Daniels's emotionally incontinent Precious or borderline deranged The Paperboy will approach his take on Billie Holiday expecting drab Sunday-afternoon telly. Sure enough, the Sky Cinema presentation does have its moments of camp release. In the midst of all the chaos and conspiracy, we get to see the late jazz singer holding a funeral for her beloved lapdog. The film greatly enjoys Billie's flamboyant entourage. But this odd project never achieves the transcendence to which it aspires.
No blame will attach to Andra Day. Juggling fragility and determination, the rising singer confidently waves away Diana Ross's performance in Lady Sings the Blues nearly 50 years ago. Catching Holiday's voice perfectly is impossible – stuck within a famously narrow vocal range, she was the antithesis of our current vibrato show-offs – but, exercising admirable restraint throughout, Day does come close to the unique emotional tension that made Strange Fruit an American masterpiece.
Taking her first major acting role, she is equally strong away from the stage: hoarse, wounded, loaded with her own tragedy. If Day were in a better film, the current Golden Globe nominee would surely be among the frontrunners for best actress at the Oscars.
Where to begin with the movie’s problems? Adapted from corners of Johann Hari’s book Chasing the Scream: The First and Last Days of the War on Drugs, Suzan-Lori Parks’s screenplay never whispers hints when it can write its message in neon lighting across the screen.
Early on, evil FBI men are pondering Strange Fruit, Holiday’s famously sparse treatment of racist lynching, as they plot to bring the singer down. “People are calling this song a starting gun for this so-called civil rights movement!” someone says. Got that? Even if this weren’t 16 years before the March on Washington, the line would still land with an awkward squelch. Eager to stress connections with ongoing conflicts, the characters constantly refer to the war on drugs as a “War on Drugs”. The phrase was not in common usage until the 1970s.
More damaging than the forgivable tendency towards broad anachronism is the decision to focus so closely on Holiday's alleged relationship with undercover FBI agent Jimmy Fletcher. Relying on the controversial thesis in Hari's book, the film builds its structure – insofar as it has such a thing – around the ups and downs of a love affair that, according to this version, redefined definitions of betrayal.
Played without much flair by Trevante Rhodes, Fletcher gets insufficient opportunity to work through conflictions that, for the most part, we must assume to be hovering above the conjugal bed. Why settle on that relationship? Lester Young, Holiday's legendary saxophonist, is right there in his pork-pie hat.
The intrigue, drug busts, love affairs, touring dust-ups and musical tours de force are flung together in a cluttered fashion that is more suggestive of free jazz than the emerging bebop. Some episodes work well. Billie’s triumph at Carnegie Hall provides a stirring centrepiece. But Natasha Lyonne’s creative casting as Tallulah Bankhead – she looks nothing like that star and has a very different energy – delivers none of the disreputable hi-jinks we might have anticipated. The film seems composed by the throwing of allegorical paint at allegorical canvas in the hope that some of it allegorically sticks.
And yet. As in all of Lee Daniels’s films, there is an antic enthusiasm for the medium that holds attention throughout. The United States vs Billie Holiday compares intriguingly with another, superficially similar film from the current awards season. Adapted from a distinguished play by August Wilson, Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom is better written, more neatly structured and a lot more tasteful. It’s also a good bit duller.
For all its abundant flaws, The United States vs Billie Holiday is clearly the work of a man with hot celluloid running through his lymphatic system. I guess that is a compliment.
On Sky Cinema from February 27th